Music and political economy may seem unrelated topics, especially for a composer, but government policy around the economy, which is full of political decisions and value judgements, determines everything, not least the value of the arts in society. Political economy and philosophy happens to be a particular area of interest for me.

People often claim music has metaphysical properties. Schopenhauer held that in aesthetic experience of either art or nature, we unconsciously recognize our kinship with the basic forces of nature and become no longer individual.

“The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.”

Thomas Beecham

On a more practical note, music aids productivity. Many people report using it to aid their work or activities. Others describe how it affects or even changes their mood or emotions. Music is described as a universal language.

Unfortunately music doesn’t give us any answers. When it comes to our community, our relationship with the planet and each other, we need to think carefully about the way we live in shaping a more inclusive, compassionate, and sustainable future for humanity. Love may be “all you need” but in my view there is nothing more important than an understanding of political economy in shaping our world. Without it, democracy descends to the merits of a talent contest.

“It is extremely important for our democracy to function that ordinary citizens understand the key issues and basic theories of economics.”

Ha-Joon Chang

A problem we have today is that one school, neoclassical economics, has dominated the political thinking of many countries (not all of course) over the last 40 years. This was not always so. What was once a matter of open discussion among many schools of thought has become ideological and dangerous to question as if the neoclassical view were a law of nature. However, despite what some would have you believe, economics is not a science, and is a lot more complex and nuanced than to be reduced to a theory of exchange and consumption, the core of neoclassical thinking.

The typical economics course starts with the study of how rational agents interact in frictionless markets, producing an outcome that is best for everyone. Only later does it cover those wrinkles and perversities that characterise real economic behaviour, such as anti-competitive practices or unstable financial markets. As students advance, there is a growing bias towards mathematical elegance. When the uglier real world intrudes, it only prompts the question: this is all very well in practice but how does it work in theory?

Fortunately, the steps needed to bring economics teaching into the real world do not require the invention of anything new or exotic. The curriculum should embrace economic history and pay more attention to unorthodox thinkers such as Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek and – yes – even Karl Marx. Faculties need to restore links with other fields such as psychology and anthropology, whose insights can explain phenomena that economics cannot. Economics professors should make the study of imperfect competition – and of how people act in conditions of uncertainty – the starting point of courses, not an afterthought.

Financial Times, September 25, 2014

Determining the greater good through political action and government is not easy. However the idea that unregulated markets can do better is not supported by evidence. The 2008/2009 financial crisis is only one example where a lack of regulation creates massive social damage. Conversely the most successful stories of capitalism can be clearly attributed to central planning.

The great promise of markets achieving the best outcome is just not the reality. It’s a nice idea only in theory. In practice, we are forced to question the norms of consumption and growth where not only is the environment under threat but capital is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, corrupting democracy and leading to a neo-feudalism. Of course markets are important and necessary. However, we simply cannot leave it to markets, firms and people like Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk, and Gates to decide what is valuable.

Despite the deluge of political rhetoric to the contrary, it’s obvious that markets are manipulated, luck plays a bigger role than merit, and a lot of what is being peddled adds little real value to people’s lives. At the same time we are failing to provide essential security and basic needs for citizens who struggle with precarious work conditions and find their jobs meaningless if they are lucky to have them. If we also consider rising inequality and disparities of wealth, I believe we are facing a serious rise in social instability within developed countries

I recommend a few places to learn more and develop a heterodox view of economics and capitalism. An easy quick read: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

Many alternative ways of looking at economics can be freely viewed at the Institute for New Economic Thinking:

This introductory series of video lectures on economics by Professor Ha-Joon Chang provides an excellent overview of the subject: